Need to know
- In a National Seniors survey, 1100 of 5000 respondents said they'd been scammed.
- In a payment redirection scam, one elderly woman lost $370,000 that she thought she was sending to an aged care home.
- Even the most cautious consumers can fall victim to scams, which are increasingly sophisticated.
As if getting older didn't present enough challenges, Australia's senior citizens are now also more likely to have their lives upended by scammers.
Simply put, the older you are, the more likely you are to fall prey to criminals trawling for victims in the digital world or via your phone. And the problem is only getting worse, as scams have become sophisticated enough to take in even the most cautious of consumers.
In 2021, Australians 65 and older lost more money to scams than any other age group – about $82 million of the $1.8 billion reported to the ACCC's Scamwatch, as well as to ReportCyber, financial institutions and other government agencies.
It was more than double the amount lost in 2020, when scammers made off with $38 million from older Australians.
The typical investment scam victim is a man aged 65 or older, living in NSW, who has met the scammer on social media or responded to a bogus ad
Most of the money lost in 2021 was to investment scams, which fleeced Australians out of a collective $701 million by the end of the year. Many of these were cryptocurrency scams, and the 65-plus set were the biggest losers there as well, parting ways with a collective $26.5 million.
According to more recent Scamwatch data, the typical investment scam victim is a man aged 65 or older, living in NSW, who has met the scammer on social media or responded to a bogus ad, and has then been strung along for several months before relinquishing the money.
Almost half the people in this age range rely on government payments as their sole source of income.
Losing $400,000 to a remote-access scam
Older Australians are also disproportionately affected by remote-access scams (where a scammer posing as a representative from a company you do business with convinces you to install software on your computer or mobile phone and then accesses your bank account).
These types of scams have involved scammers pretending to be from the National Broadband Network (NBN) and other prominent businesses and can be especially devastating. In one case documented by the ACCC, a woman lost $400,000 after her funds were transferred through the cryptocurrency exchanges Coinspot and Blockchain.
Telstra, Amazon and NBN were the three most impersonated businesses reported to IDCare in 2021. (IDCare is a nonprofit service operating in Australia and New Zealand that helps scam and data breach victims, especially in the area of identity theft.)
In another case highlighted by the regulator, a payment redirection scam (where a scammer intervenes in the middle of a legitimate transaction and tricks victims into transferring funds to their account) robbed an elderly grandmother of $370,000 that was meant to go to an aged care home.
Older people with a disability also lost more money than their younger counterparts in 2021.
In both 2021 and 2022, Australians 65 and older lost more money to scams than any other age group.
Losses increased from 2021 to 2022
In 2022, it was much the same story. People aged 65 and over once again lost more money than other age groups to scammers – $120.7 million in total, up 47% from 2021.
According to the data collected by Scamwatch, the average phishing scam victim in 2022 was a woman 65 or older living in NSW who received a text message from a scammer impersonating her bank, her child or a road toll company. Clicking on the link led the victim to provide personal information and eventually execute a bank transfer to the scammer's account.
We have unfortunately seen instances where people have not only fallen victim to classic inheritance or investment scams ... but they are then offered false hope to regain their moneyAustralian Federal Police Commander Kate Ferry
Older Australians also lost the most to remote access scams in 2022 – $9.2 million. And, as with phishing, the average victim was a woman aged 65 or over, living in NSW, who was tricked into providing remote access to her computer or mobile phone.
Sometimes online scams affecting older people can have an added twist. In November 2022, the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force released a statement outlining the growing trend of older scams victims tricked into acting as drug mules in an effort to recover their losses.
"We have unfortunately seen instances where people have not only fallen victim to classic inheritance or investment scams and lost their money, but they are then offered false hope to regain their money, some unwittingly working as drug mules for the criminal syndicate," AFP Commander Kate Ferry said at the time.
Online platforms not helping
Brett Levy, the director of the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association, says it's not clear what platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon are doing to prevent scammers from operating in their ecosystems.
"If we are looking to such platforms to prevent scams from taking place then I'm afraid that will be a failed line of defence," Levy says, adding that, in any case, "buried in their terms and conditions will be a release of liability".
Efforts to make platforms take responsibility appear to face considerable challenges. In 2022, a California federal judge ruled that Facebook was not responsible for deceptive ads on its platform that led to users paying for items they never received. The ACCC also launched a case against Facebook and its owner Meta in 2022, alleging they engaged in false, deceptive and misleading conduct by publishing scam ads that featured well-known Australian public figures.
Levy says it's up to senior Australians to take the matter in hand, enlisting the help of their children or other younger digital-age people if necessary to help them navigate the technology and set up stronger passwords and protections.
The biggest red flag is that the scammer's modus operandi is to take control of the victim's device. No reputable company would do thisAustralian Seniors Computer Clubs Association director Brett Levy
"Most platforms have two-factor authentication, yet many users don't have it set up as it's considered inconvenient. This inconvenience pales next to having one's bank account wiped out though."
Levy says scams targeting seniors are often "similar in nature and generally coercive".
"The scammers bully their victims and are often abusive and lack patience. This alone should be the cue for the would-be-victim, as no company would employ customer care agents that lose their cool with customers."
"The biggest red flag is that the scammer's modus operandi is to take control of the victim's device. No reputable company would do this, let alone ask for bank details and for them to log on to their account."
Computer-literate less likely to be scammed
National Seniors Australia Chief Operating Officer Chris Grice tells CHOICE that "the economic and psychological distress scammers cause to older people and the community is significant".
The organisation's research shows that its members are contacted regularly by scammers. In a National Seniors survey of 5000 seniors, 22% (1100) said they'd been scammed, with those who were comfortable using computers faring slightly better than those who struggled online.
Scammers continually change their strategies to keep ahead of potential victims and sometimes these strategies are targeted specifically at older peopleNational Seniors COO Chris Grice
"Scams are getting more and more sophisticated. Scammers continually change their strategies to keep ahead of potential victims and sometimes these strategies are targeted specifically at older people," Grice says.
"Sadly, scammers take advantage of some older people's lack of technology knowledge and experience, as well as other vulnerabilities including loneliness."
National Seniors has recommended to the banking sector that older people be allowed to opt out of instant payments, "so people have an opportunity to stop a transaction before the money is gone".
The organisation is also calling on businesses and governments across the board to take steps "to prevent scams and decrease the financial and psychological impact on their victims".
Tips to avoid getting scammed
The central principle of scam avoidance in today's world is to stop and think before you act. Be sceptical, cautious, and if in doubt end the communication and seek advice from a trusted source.
- Take the time to think things through and ask yourself if something could be a scam. Scammers typically try to pressure you to act quickly.
- Never hand over sensitive information or personal information to anyone on the phone, via text or online.
- Anyone asking for your password is probably scamming you. Never give out your pins or passwords.
- If you get a call claiming to be from a company you do business with, hang up and contact the company yourself using contact details from a trusted source (such as the official company website).
- If the emailer, texter or caller claims to be from a company you have no relationship with, simply delete the messages or hang up.
- Don't send money or personal information to people in unusual locations.
- Be wary if you are asked to pay for something in an unusual way, such as a pre-loaded debit card or virtual currencies like bitcoin. If you are asked to set up a new bank account or PayID to either send or receive money, be suspicious. These are all hallmarks of a scam.
- Be sceptical when reviewing emails, never click a link, or open an attachment in a text or email that you are suspicious of. Make sure the sender is who they say they are, and know what you are opening. If in doubt, delete it.
- If you receive a robocall (an automated call with a pre-recorded message, sometimes using an automated voice), hang up.
- Enable two-factor authentication where available.
- Report suspected scams to Scamwatch and ReportCyber.
- If you think you have been scammed, act quickly and contact your bank. You can also seek help from IDCare.
- Watch out for follow-up scams. Once successful, a scammer is likely to try again.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.